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India – The justice deficit

Antara Dev Sen

We need to make sure that our justice system — once the pride of
India, now overburdened and slow — gets its mojo back. Because a weak
justice delivery mechanism can kill democracy.

India has carried out the execution of Yakub Memon,” says the BBC,
“the man convicted of financing the deadly 1993 Mumbai bombings.” It
goes on to say that 257 people were killed in the Mumbai blasts. In my
quiet hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this news is
supposed to induce further calm. Oh good, this horrible mass murderer
has finally been punished for his crimes. How carefully we simplify
news, how neatly we cut off jagged ends and make a nice, presentable,
bite-sized package to be consumed easily.

No talk of how Yakub Memon, an accidental participant in the horrible
acts of terror, had defied his brother Tiger Memon, one of the
masterminds of the blasts, stepped out of the protection of the
Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan and willingly come back to
India to cooperate with the Indian government. No talk of how the
blasts that killed 257 were a response to the horrifying Bombay riots
of 1992-93 that killed over 900. Or of the planned demolition of the
Babri Masjid before the riots. Nothing justifies the killing of
innocents through bomb blasts, of course, but looking at it out of
context gives a wrong picture to the uninitiated.

There are several worrying facts here. We need to address them as
responsible citizens of a beautifully crafted democracy that is in
danger of crumbling. We need to make sure that our justice system —
once the pride of India, now overburdened, slow and far less majestic
than before — gets its mojo back. Because a weak justice delivery
mechanism can kill democracy.

First, we are told that it was necessary to hang Yakub Memon because
he was a terrorist. So were the others sentenced with him, some of
whom had far bigger roles in the blasts, but whose death sentences
were commuted to life imprisonment. Yakub, sadly, was the absconding
Tiger Memon’s brother. In our country, your family is more important
than your own deeds. He had to hang.

Second, it was necessary, we are told, for justice, for closure for
the families of those 257 dead. What about justice for the 900 dead in
the same city just before that? Do their families not deserve closure?
There have been only three convictions for the riots that killed so
many and wounded thousands. Three Shiv Sena men were sentenced to one
year in prison. Of them, one was a member of Parliament so he got
instant bail, and died a free man. On the other hand, 100 people were
convicted for the blasts, of which several are in jail and Yakub

Third, why are acts of terror that kill 257 worse than acts of terror
that kill 900? Why is being blown to bits by a bomb worse than being
butchered and raped and killed by sadistic murderers protected by the
powers that be? To investigate the riots, the Congress government set
up a commission of inquiry, headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna. When
the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition came to power in Maharashtra, it quickly
disbanded it. It was brought back following a huge public outcry, and
asked to probe the blasts as well. The Srikrishna Commission declared
that the riots were instigated by the Shiv Sena and Hindu mobs, and
that the blasts were a direct result of the riots and the demolition
of the Babri Masjid. The report was brushed aside by the Hindutva
political brotherhood, and Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray lived like
a king and was given a state funeral when he died in 2012.
To investigate the blasts, however, we did not have a commission. We
had a special, horrific law, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities
(Prevention) Act (Tada). Yakub and other convicts were tried under
this inhuman, now defunct law. Yakub was hanged under this law that
lapsed in 1995. How fair is that?

Fourth, our honourable political parties fight for brownie points over
the lives of citizens stamped “terrorist”. If the Congress-led
government could collect patriotism brownie points by the disgusting,
secret hanging of Afzal Guru, how could the BJP-led government not
grab patriotic brownie points by hanging Yakub Memon? Killing convicts
is a show of strength. And the President must remain a rubber stamp —
robotically discarding all mercy pleas.
Fifth, there is a feeling that our justice system sometimes panders to
political expediency and mob sentiment. Which gives a majoritarian
tilt to justice. We saw it in the Allahabad high court’s verdict on
the Babri Masjid. It attempted to rectify the imagined wrong of a
Hindu temple being demolished at the site 500 years ago, but made no
attempt to rectify the recent wrong of demolishing the Babri Masjid
witnessed by the nation on live television. Instead, it allowed those
who demolished the mosque to profit from their crime, thus
legitimising the act. By trying to provide a political solution to a
politicised problem of faith, the court let the muscle-flexing
majority influence legal justice, disregarding the constitutional
guarantee of equality before the law.

That acts of violence against Muslims are not punished the same way
acts of violence by Muslims are, is worrying. Maya Kodnani, accused of
killing a hundred-odd people during the Gujarat riots, is out on bail,
and the courts are reportedly going slow on those accused of “Hindu
terror” while moving swiftly on Muslims — all this gives reason to
fear for the health of Indian democracy.

Sixth, is it shocking that though Yakub was helping state agencies in
the blasts probe and gave them evidence of Pakistan’s involvement, he
was still hanged? Not really. When the state wants to look good it
often yanks up someone at hand to throw him to the lions. When they
need to, investigative officers unflinchingly frame police informers,
or surrendered militants working with the agencies, as terrorists.
They are usually Muslims. Yakub was not the only one betrayed by our
law enforcement officers and justice system.

Seventh, in our country, justice often eludes the powerless.
Minorities disproportionately fill our prisons, mostly as undertrials.
Muslims, dalits and tribals make up 53 per cent of India’s prison

Let’s face it, our justice system is biased towards the powerful. If
we wish to save the secular, democratic credentials of India, this
justice deficit needs to be urgently rectified.
The writer is editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]

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